This essay investigates Western theology’s ontological argument for God’s existence, analyzes its shortcomings, and puts forward the thesis that Advaita Vedanta’s ontological argument based on phenomenology escapes from Kant’s famous criticism. As always, I am indebted to Swami Sarvapriyananda from the Ramakrishna Order for his lectures on Advaita Vedanta. Any failure to do justice to the beauty and cogency of Vedanta is my own fault.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ontological Arguments says,
The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.
The most famous criticism of this argument is Kant’s supposition that “existence” is not a predicate i.e. not an attribute that can be “attached” or “detached” to an entity like “God” and so St. Anselm’s move to say the concept of God with the property of “existence” is greater than the concept of God without the property “existence” is fundamentally flawed for existence is not a predicate that can be “attached” as a property to entities.
Western philosophy has debated the viability of ontological arguments for well over a thousand years without resolution. In this essay, I will argue that the traditional Hindu philosophical system of Advaita Vedanta is superior insofar as it is (1) phenomenological and (2) methodological.
By “methodological” I mean the ontological argument of Advaita Vedanta is first and primarily a tool of Self-inquiry to be utilized in the soteriological goal of Self-realization or God-realization. In other words, the goal of the ontological argument of Vedanta is not to win an abstruse theological debate but to realize God and achieve liberation, or enlightenment.
This is not to say that Advaita Vedanta lacks analytical rigor. I would argue the technical rigor of its conceptual toolkit rivals if not surpasses the analytical rigor of Western philosophy, especially when it comes to conceptions of God and consciousness. Nevertheless, Indian philosophy cannot be separated from the individualistic goal of achieving Self-realization or God-realization. The goal is not to convince others that God exists, but to convince yourself that you yourself are God and thus become enlightened.
Western philosophers have long held a prejudice against Indian philosophy for its soteriological goals and deemed it merely religious and thereby irrational and not “objective” like the vaunted Greek-Christian foundations of Western analytic philosophy.
It goes without saying that this is merely a cultural bias and not itself a rational objection to the philosophical merits of Indian philosophy for it is patently question begging to say that goal of philosophy should be divorced from individualistic soteriological goals, which is a normative value judgment that cannot be assumed from a “neutral” position, because such a “neutral” position does not exist, and certainly cannot be assumed up-front as being grounded within the assumptions of Western philosophy.
Advaita Vedanta’s Phenomenological Ontological Argument
So what is Advaita Vedanta’s phenomenological ontological argument? I can only provide a brief summary here (for a fuller treatment, see this post on why you are not the body.)
Advaita Vedanta actually does agree with Kant that existence is not a predicate. But it doesn’t stop there. It asks you to reflect on your phenomenological experience of being itself.
I am typing on my laptop. I am consciously aware of so doing. My actions are illuminated by the Light of awareness. I clearly seem to exist as a conscious subject who is having all these objects of consciousness appear before my consciousness. I notice in my conscious awareness everything is constantly changing. I notice all around me contingency and temporary existence.
But I also notice that there seems to be one unitary constant tied to my conscious experience of all this contingency and multiplicity: the unitary individuality of my conscious experience as a conscious subject in which and through which all these objects appear to me as a conscious subject. All of this contingency and multiplicity is appearing to me as a conscious subject.
As such, I start to have thoughts about myself as a conscious subject, asking myself: who am I? What is my true nature as a conscious subject?
I then notice my intellectual thoughts and reflections are themselves contingent and temporary, arising and falling away and multiplicitous. So even my thoughts are appearing to me as a conscious subject. But who am I as a conscious subject? I seem to be the one constant in all my experience of multiplicity.
Moreover, I notice in my conscious experience a sense of being itself. I notice all these existing things and entities but these existing things seem to have a conscious sense of “presence” insofar as they exist at all qua existing things. But what is this sense of being itself? Is being itself another “thing” or “entity” which exists?
No! For if II were to catalog the existence of all existing things, existence itself would not be another “thing” added to the inventory of existing things. Rather, existence itself would be the transcendental ground upon which it is logically possible for there to be any existing “thing” at all.
For if existence itself did not “exist” it would not be possible for there to be something rather than nothing!
But existence itself is not just another thing, nor is it a predicate, as Kant argues. It is a transcendental principle. Kant realized this but he situated that transcendental principle inside the heads of humans as a kind of subjective “filter” we project onto the thing-in-itself.
The key difference is that Kant conceived of these transcendental frameworks as personal and projected from our own selves whereas Advaita Vedanta conceives of the transcendental principle of consciousness as a universal, impersonal, external, all-pervasive oneness that is “without second,” i.e. unitary within itself, without difference of kind.
Thus, it is not that we all have these transcendental principles in our heads that act as filters we project onto the thing-in-itself. Rather, Advaita Vedanta conceives of Consciousness as a universal, impersonal Pure Witness Subjectivity that is the ground for all possible experience, which amounts to saying, all possible experience of the manifest cosmos.
For Vedanta, Consciousness is not an “individual” phenomenon we all have in our individual minds but a universal principle, and any “individuality” is an appearance within Consciousness appearing to Consciousness.
Advaita Vedanta starts from the phenomenological analysis of conscious subjectivity and ends with the conclusion that consciousness itself is not itself an object of experience. Consciousness itself is the transcendental ground that makes it possible for there to be conscious experiences of objects.
This maps perfectly onto the very same ontological argument of existence itself being the transcendental ground that makes it possible for there to be existing things.
Thus, an analysis of my conscious phenomenology in the present moment brings me to the conclusion that my conscious subjectivity is the transcendental ground that makes it possible to consciously experience things. But pure consciousness itself cannot be experienced as an object any more than existence itself can be experienced as an object.
For pure consciousness and pure existence are not objects of experience but the transcendental logical ground in which and through it is possible for entities to appear before my conscious awareness.
Thus, we arrive at Advaita Vedanta’s definition of God: Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, which is called Brahman, the Absolute.
The “bliss” component comes in insofar as Existence-Consciousness is unlimited in its scope and thus “blissfully” complete and absolutely not lacking any “thing” insofar as pure Existence-Consciousness cannot exist apart from anything.
Brahman is Not a Being
Advaita Vedanta thus escapes from Kant’s criticism of St. Anselm insofar as Advaita Vedanta crucially differs from St. Anselm in not conceiving God as a “being” at all.
St. Anselm defines God as the “being than which no greater can be conceived.” But the problem with this is that God becomes conceived as a “being.”
But atheists can simply retort: why should we believe such a being exists? You can’t magically derive existence from the supposition of a perfect being.
But Advaita Vedanta is not subject to a similar criticism insofar as Brahman is not understood to be a being at all but rather being itself.
And from within the perspective of conscious phenomenology, it becomes impossible to deny the existence of being itself, for if there was no being, how can your conscious experience exist at all? Thus, the only way to deny the existence of Brahman is to deny you yourself exist at the same time you are consciously aware, which is a phenomenological oxymoron, for if you are consciously aware your conscious awareness must exist qua conscious awareness.
That is to say, for Advaita Vedanta, God is not conceived as a distinct “being” but rather as a transcendental principle of pure existence itself which is immediately phenomenologically apparent in our conscious experience insofar as we can easily recognize that conscious experience itself purely exists and cannot itself be known “as an object.”
This connects to the hard problem of consciousness insofar as Advaita recognizes the basic phenomenological fact that subjectivity itself cannot be observed or known qua an objective fact. The idea of building a measuring device that directly measures subjectivity is a contradiction in terms. You might be able to indirectly infer subjectivity from measurements of objects but by definition, subjectivity cannot be measured as an objective object.
This basic phenomenological fact is readily apparently in our own experience: for we cannot consciously know our own conscious experience as an object of experience; our consciousness is the transcendental ground that makes it logically possible for us to consciously experience objects and cannot itself be known as an object, any more than we can see our own eyes or bite our own teeth.
Methodology and Soteriology
I can easily imagine a skeptical reader of the above arguments thinking, “What bullshit. That’s not convincing at all.”
And that’s fine! In the context of Indian philosophy “arguments” like these are not the same as Western theological debates. You are not just supposed to try to accept them purely as intellectual theses.
Rather, the point is to go through this process of discrimination and philosophical reasoning in the context of your lived experience and see for yourself whether the reality of Brahman as Pure Existence-Consciousness-Bliss becomes self-evident in the directness of your own lived experience.
In other words, Advaita Vedanta does not care about dry theological arguments for the mere sake of intellectual arguments. If you do not realize the truth of Brahman in your own experience via Self-realization/God-realization then you have not really truly “gotten it.”
In the words of 20th-century sci-fi parlance, the point of Vedanta is to “grok” Brahman, to realize Brahman, to realize this truth directly in your own reality, internalize it, and have it manifest in your daily ethical behavior.
For Advaita Vedanta wants you to realize not only that Brahman exists but that more importantly that you are Brahman. Your own Inner Self, your True Self, is identical to Brahman and thus you are God. This is the entire goal of philosophy: to achieve Self-realization or God-realization, achieve knowledge of your own True Nature, to realize your own inner divinity, and thereby manifest that divinity in the context of your daily lived experience.
And once you realize that Brahman is the only reality, and you are Brahman, it immediately follows that everything and everyone else is Brahman too, and thus you and everyone else are all manifestations of the same fundamental ontological reality. We are all waves of the same ocean. Knowledge of this fact provides the ontological foundation for why one should treat your neighbor as yourself, for you are one with your neighbor and share in the same basic ontological reality as a manifestation of Brahman.
And once you realize this truth, you come to see the ontological argument of Advaita Vedanta as a methodology of Self-inquiry that leads to liberation and freedom from suffering, not merely a dry intellectual “belief” in God.
This is the crucial difference between Indian philosophy and Western theology. Western theology primarily cares about intellectually achieving “true belief” whereas Indian philosophy cares about directly realizing one’s “true Nature” through means of one or more of Swami Vivekananda’s four yogas:
- Karma Yoga (service to all living beings by seeing all living beings as divine)
- Bhakti Yoga (devotion to God through love, worship, ritual, symbolism, culture, etc.; seeing divinity in the whole manifest, pluralistic universe)
- Raja Yoga (psychic control, meditation, Self-realization; manifesting our inner divinity through self-control by means of meditation)
- Jhana Yoga (philosophical and intellectual reasoning; manifesting our inner divinity through reason by means of philosophical reflection on the Ultimate principles of Reality)